Mideast: Assessing Abbas's Meeting With Bush

Mahmoud Abbas left Washington a disappointed man. After a high-profile White House meeting with President George W. Bush, the Palestinian president told reporters that he was returning home with little to show for his White House visit. According to an aide to the Palestinian president, the meeting failed to address the key issues of a peace agreement, most importantly the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from new settlements in Palestinian territories and the redrawing of borders to pre-1967 lines.

This round of U.S.-led talks, which Bush launched last November, has been sluggish since its glitzy kickoff summit almost six months ago in Annapolis, Md. The initial overture was seen largely as a legacy move by the administration in its final year, but the lack of progress signals little hope for any brokered deal, big or small. To discuss the current state of the negotiations and what it will take to jump-start the process, NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone spoke with Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center and author of the new book "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace." Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What were some of Abbas's biggest complaints to the president about the slow-moving talks?
Aaron David Miller: There's definitely a lament about [the lack of] a firmer American stance on settlement activity. I'm sure he didn't directly complain to the president, but I'm sure there's a complaint on the issue of how serious the Americans are in their involvement, though Abbas's public comments seem to say that he still takes what the president said seriously and he believes that an agreement is possible by the end of the year.

Abbas, though, doesn't seem to have that much power in the process. He represents only about half of Palestinian territories.
If that.

How big a voice is he?
He's important for three reasons. One, he's elected by 62 percent of the Palestinian public in elections that were reasonably fair and free. Number two, because he was relatively close to [Yasir] Arafat, he does have some of that Palestinian Liberation Organization organizational legitimacy. And three, he has interacted extremely well with Israelis over the years. He's genuinely a good man, freed from the politics of violence and intimidation and much of the corruption that characterized other PLO leaders, although he's constantly criticized by Hamas and others.

Which must eat at his credibility …
Perhaps, but the Israelis have always looked toward him with a lot of hope. It's just that he's constrained. Both Abbas and [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert are not masters of their politics; they're prisoners of it.

In terms of these talks and any hope of an agreement, how big a role is America really playing?
This is not an American story now. The [American-orchestrated] process started at Annapolis has virtually disappeared. The roadmap of the process's implementation has disappeared, which was an American-written document. What remains are two very significant realities, but neither is being driven by the United States. One is a series of conversations that are being held by Abbas and Olmert on permanent status issues, like refugees and security. And secondly, there's an Egyptian effort to bring a greater measure of stability on the ground by pursuing the informal accommodation between Israel and Hamas. These two are where the story is.

Jimmy Carter met with Hamas leaders earlier this month. Has his dialogue with them been beneficial to the peace efforts?
It hasn't had much of an effect. His visit was kind of like a key to an empty room, because I think he's not really relevant right now to the two potentially significant things that are underway … I don't think Carter is going to hurt or help either of those efforts. A lot of people think the sky is falling now that Carter has done what he's done. I don't think it's that consequential.

Over the past few months, is it possible to say when the talks broke down?
They never broke down, because they never got moving. It was easy to guess what would happen: the big, noisy event would go away and Abbas and Olmert would continue the discussions they started. In other words, Annapolis didn't even produce the Abbas-Olmert dialogue. That started five months before. But Annapolis gave greater weight in the real world to the visuals and the possibility that the Arab-Israeli peace process was back on track. It's a little more on track than it was, and if Olmert and Abbas actually do produce a few pages that lay out the broad principles on Jerusalem and security, it will be a breakthrough, but the U.S. will not have facilitated that process.

The administration couldn't have intended for U.S. mediation to simply fade away.
Well, for the first six years of his presidency, George W. Bush never invested significantly in this issue. Governing in Washington is about choosing your priorities. The administration chose different priorities. To give them the benefit of the doubt that he's now seriously interested in this process in the wake of Annapolis, it's becoming increasingly clear that they hope Abbas and Olmert will work out something on their own, they hope the Egyptians will broker some deal that brings a modicum of stability, and they hope they won't have to get involved in a messy, sticky problem that they know cannot be resolved right now.

What should America be doing to more effectively steer negotiations?
We could take a tougher position on settlements, but we won't do that, only because it's just not George Bush's way, intuitively and instinctively. There's not a whole lot we can do. But also I wouldn't call for a more robust American role right now. I think now and for the next six weeks Abbas and Olmert should see how far they can get. Let the Egyptians try to hammer out a ceasefire. Then make an assessment.

That sounds like a lot of time to sit idly by.
Look, at all costs this administration must avoid the fundamental mistakes of its predecessor, which is to do too much too late in the game, and call for some high-wire summit. Because if they do that and they fail, they will kill the idea of a two-state solution to this conflict.

Which other regional leaders could play a hand?
America is the key, because no other prospective mediator has relations with both sides. That's why the E.U., the Russians and the Brits have never been able to effect mediation. For 40 years the agreements that have been produced have all largely been done through American mediation, with others playing subsidiary or derivative roles. No one else really has the trust of both sides.